Truman on Trial: The Defense, Closing Argument


Ronald Radosh is the author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left (Encounter Books), and co-editor with Mary R. Habeck of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (Yale University Press).

Philip Nobile is correct to note that I did not answer the question of whether or not Harry S. Truman was a war criminal by accepting his terms of the argument; i.e., whether or not on legal grounds using the A-bomb on Hiroshima constitutes a crime of war. I did so because I find this to be a largely academic and irrelevant exercise. It is based largely on the horrible effect that the single bomb had on the Japanese population, and ignores the context of the decision. As I tried to argue, that context made use of the A-bomb not only a viable alternative to forcing an end to the war and acceptance by Japan of the Potsdam terms, but was an alternative better and more humane than any of the other existing alternatives. Hence, to call use of the A-bomb a war crime is to allow those actually liable for prosecution of war crimes an easy way to get off the hook. If once accepts Nobile's terms of the argument, any act of war with disastrous results on civilians is ipso facto a crime of war.

Contrary to Nobile, Truman and his staff did not intend to commit"fiendish slaughters." It was not"the whole point." Their purpose was to force the Japanese military to accept surrender and end the fighting---something which to my satisfaction, Richard B. Frank in particular has shown they would not have done were it not for the actual use of the A-bomb. Indeed, the A-bomb gave them a way to accept surrender and save face. They could argue that they had to give in because science forced them to---not the actions of a competing military force. It was, as one of the Japanese members of the peace faction put it, a"gift from heaven."

Evidently, careful arguments for a position with which he disagrees makes one intellectually dishonest. This, indeed, is a smear.

I apologize if I suggested that Philip Nobile had sympathy for Axis gangsters. I stand corrected and take his word that this is not the case. He does, however, if one goes back to the ending of his statement, have a clear sympathy with the position of some Japanese who want all those who made the decision to use the bomb hanged, which the man he quotes believes would be what would have happened if a war crimes tribunal was convened against Truman and his associates. As for the issue of the killing of noncombatants, Frank points out---and I cite Frank because I consider his book to be the most recent, balanced and definitive study of the issues involved---that local war production was carried out in civilian homes; that many" civilians" were actually quite involved in work for the military and the war, and that there were clusters of production purposefully introduced throughout Hiroshima in order to integrate daily life with the war effort. And as I noted, Japanese leaders were candid to acknowledge at the time that if they had developed an atomic bomb, they would have immediately used it without concern on the American mainland.

I would also suggest that one reason Allied historians have"washed their hands" of the issue of supposed Allied criminality is that, in fact, the Allied actions were not criminal. That is the essence of my own statement, and I stand by it. I did write, perhaps carelessly, that the historians he cites had been accused of"war crimes." What Philip Nobile accused them of is apologizing for war criminals and"intellectual dishonesty." He now accuses me of this as well. Evidently, careful arguments for a position with which he disagrees makes one intellectually dishonest. This, indeed, is a smear.

As to Eisenhower, the main point, which Nobile does not address, is that whatever the accuracy of his view of use of the bomb, Eisenhower knew little about the Pacific theater, and his judgment about the bomb's use there must be regarded not as the words of a skilled"military man," but the same as that of any commentator opposed to the bomb who has no expertise at all. Nobile cites him because his point of view is that held by Nobile. I wonder if he would have cited him if Eisenhower had said"thank God we used the bomb to end the war quickly." He would, indeed, then have added him to the docket of war criminals along with Truman.

As for the Japanese sources---they were used by Frank, which is where I learned about them---to put Truman and his administration's decision making in the context of actual Japanese policy as it was affected by the bomb. It is not a question of"might" making right, as well as success. What Nobile again leaves out is the other part of the equation---that any of the existing alternatives would have meant more death, destruction, loss of both American and Japanese lives, and would have likely been far worse than the effects of the two atomic bombs that were dropped. As for the figures he cites with dismay, they are carefully developed by Frank from solid military sources, and are not a matter of insignificant or"unprecedented apocalyptic" figures. I think what disturbs Nobile is that once one takes these figures into consideration; the use of the bomb becomes a more difficult proposition to condemn as a war crime. He puts his finger on the issue when he writes that he doubts that Truman would have risked doubling the number of American deaths in a final assault. Precisely. That is a good reason for why he sought to use the A-bomb, to end the war quickly, and to save lives in the process.

Nobile also cites the well known US government study of 1946-the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey -and notes that even that official study" concluded that the bombs were unnecessary," and he writes that this"detailed investigation" was based on all the facts, as well as the testimony of Japanese leaders. As the Survey concluded:" certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

To exonerate Harry S. Truman of the charge leveled against him by Philip Nobile will be to honor Reason and not Power.

These are strong and indeed definitive sounding judgments. It is also true, as Nobile says, that many military leaders argued after the war that conventional attacks could have done the job without use of the bomb. But as Frank writes, and once again I defer to him, the date set down"so authoritatively by the Strategic Bombing Survey has not fared well under scrutiny." Indeed, he adds that in fact, the USSBS did not in reality examine all the facts, as it had claimed. Moreover, the contemporary record gives no indication of such confident predictions to Truman. No wonder Nobile easily dismisses General Marshall's words as"waffling." But he did not waffle. He told the President on June 18, 1945 that bombing could not end the war. Nobile may disagree---but Marshall hardly waffled. As to their arguments, they were made in the context of major debates between different sectors of the military, at a time when the creation of a single Department of Defense with a separate Air Force was being made. Their statements, Frank writes,"packed a lot of baggage behind their superficial representations of sound military judgment." And more importantly, neither did the USSBS or the military leaders Nobile cites address"the contingency of the Japanese political situation and, more significant, neither compared the human costs of these alternatives with the toll exacted by atomic weapons." In other words, they made the same mistaken argument that Nobile makes today.

Nobile argues, in fact, that"it may well be that the bombs were the proximate cause of Japan's surrender." But he moralizes that"only in the mind of a criminal does might and success make right." Once again, Nobile does not come to terms with the strong evidence that the other alternatives might have been worse in terms of the cost of human life on both sides of the conflict. If one accepts this argument, then deciding to use the atomic bombs cannot be viewed-- because of the resulting civilian casualties--as a war crime. It is as simple as that.

As to the vote of the jury of historians, I argue that once again, this is an academic exercise that can only work to make the historical profession look more foolish than many already consider it to be, should this meaningless jury actually vote to condemn Truman in retrospect for war crimes. Surely, such a vote will get some press attention--as to those endless Presidential surveys when historians tell the public Ronald Reagan was the worst President and stands at the end of the list---while liberal Democrats are always on the top. These polls and now this jury say more about the state of the historical profession and its politics than it does about the questions being discussed.

To reach such a conclusion is to accept Nobile's faulty scenario that has Japan on"the final throes of defeat," the Pacific battleground"quiet," etc. etc. etc. The actual evidence and the most recent research of the scholars I have cited, however, indicates that contrary to Nobile, Harry S. Truman did not engage in a"sham excuse" and in fact was not"drowning in untried alternatives," because such alternatives were themselves faulty and were not sufficient to cause the President not to use the bomb. Nor were the estimates of invasion of the homelands saturated with"fantasy casualty estimates." They are obviously to Philip Nobile, but not to those who had to consider the actual invasions. To exonerate Harry S. Truman of the charge leveled against him by Philip Nobile will be to honor Reason and not Power. I urge the jury to take this step.

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More Comments:

Eugene Baron - 1/4/2011

For what is a very complete history.,opinions of notable figures in the scientific, political and military establishments and extensive documentation you must read "Hiroshoma's Shadow", edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz.An eye opener.

Meredith Bixby - 9/7/2010

What a crock. This is the result of your academic digestion of the research?

<Most of the top US brass were against use of the bomb and did not regard it as militarily necessary (See quotes below).>

Most of the top US "brass" knew not a damned thing about it before-hand. Several of the quotes below support use of The Bomb, genius.

<Truman and Byrnes delayed the end of the war and cost American and Asian lives by deliberately refusing to clarify the surrender terms,>

What part of "Unconditional" do you think needs clarification?

< by deliberately stalling Sino-Soviet talks,>

USSR needed no leave from China to attack Japan -- What they waited for was a guarantee of success.

< by deliberately postponing the Potsdam conference,>

- to wait for a weapon that hadn't been invented yet. Yea, sure. The first successful test was the Same Day that Potsdam began.

< and by deliberately ignoring the many Japanese peace feelers>

If by "feelers" you mean conditional surrender offers, then yes, you are equivocating.

The Japs STILL would Not have surrendered without MacArthur's "off the record" guarantee that the Emperor would not be taken prisoner. The Japs STILL Did Not surrender after learning of the results of the first bomb. If not for the Russian action AND the 2nd, and LAST bomb in inventory, they would have fought for MONTHS More.

Your fiction skills are weak -- another semester of Literature 205, grasshopper. In your time off, I suggest you visit the Marine Cemetery on Okinawa, and thank God there are not more like it.

a e p - 7/19/2004

like where is your source bud?

a e p - 7/19/2004

like where is your source bud?

kimberly singleton - 12/18/2003

it was just an act of war, someone had to stop them they killed all those people at nanking

JM - 1/18/2003

Most of the top US brass were against use of the bomb and did not regard it as militarily necessary (See quotes below). Truman and Byrnes delayed the end of the war and cost American and Asian lives by deliberately refusing to clarify the surrender terms, by deliberately stalling Sino-Soviet talks, by deliberately postponing the Potsdam conference, and by deliberately ignoring the many Japanese peace feelers.

Quotes by US military leaders WWII.

"It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.....My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted the ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."
Admiral William D. Leahy. 5-star admiral, president of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combined American-British Chiefs of Staff, and chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of the army and navy from 1942 - 1945 (Roosevelt) and 1945 - 1949 (Truman).

"...I felt that it was an unnecessary loss of civilian life......We had them beaten. They hadn't enough food, they couldn't do anything."
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, quoted by his widow.

"Nimitz considered the atomic bomb somehow indecent, certainly not a legitimate form of warfare."
E. B. Potter, naval historian.

"The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment......It was a mistake ever to drop it......(the scientists) had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it......It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before."
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet.

"Especially it is good to see the truth told about the last days of the war with Japan.....I was with the Fleet during that period; and every officer in the Fleet knew that Japan would eventually capitulate from...the tight blockade. "I, too, felt strongly that it was a mistake to drop the atom bombs, especially without warning."
Rear Admiral Richard Byrd.

(The atomic bomb) "was not necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion.....it was clear to a number of people...that the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate.....it was a sin - to use a good word - (a word that) should be used more often - to kill non-combatants...."
Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.

"The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb........the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all."
Major General Curtis E. LeMay, US Army Air Forces (at a press conference, September 1945).

"Russia's entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped..."
Major General Claire Chennault, founder of the Flying Tigers, and former US Army Air Forces commander in China.

"....from the Japanese standpoint the atomic bomb was really a way out. The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell..."
Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces.

"Arnold's view was that it (dropping the atomic bomb) was unnecessary. He said that he knew that the Japanese wanted peace. There were political implications in the decision and Arnold did not feel it was the military's job to question it...........I knew nobody in the high echelons of the Army Air Force who had any question about having to invade Japan."
Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, Arnold's deputy.

"When the question comes up of whether we use the atomic bomb or not, my view is the the Air Force will not oppose the use of the bomb, and they will deliver it effectively in the Commander in Chief decide to use it. But it is not necessary to use it in order to conquer the Japanese without the necessity of a land invasion."
Arnold, quoted by Eaker.

"No! I think we had the Japs licked anyhow. I think they would have quit probably within a week or so of when they did quit."
General George C. Kenney, commander of Army Air Force units in the Southwest Pacific, when asked whether using the atomic bomb had been a wise decision.

"...Both felt Japan would surrender without use of the bomb, and neither knew why a second bomb was used."
W. Averall Harriman, in private notes after a dinner with General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz (commander in July 1945 of the Pacific-based US Army Strategic Air Forces, and Spaatz's one-time deputy commanding general in Europe, Frederick L. Anderson.

"I voiced to him (Secretary of War Stimpson) my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'........It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing"
General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct and that we would have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the entry od Russia into Manchuria."
Herbert Hoover.

"MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it....He thought it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be to limit damage to noncombatants.... MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off, which I think speaks well of him."
Richard M. Nixon.

"...he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it did later anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor."
Norman Cousins, from an interview with MacArthur.